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Immigrant, refugee children find champion

Angelina Jolie asks lawyers to represent the children who now can end up in immigration court without an attorney.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN
Published March 9, 2005


TAMPA - Just a few years ago, when she was just an actor, Oscar winner Angelina Jolie felt worthless.

"My life was no use to others," Jolie said.

That was until she began helping refugee children, she told hundreds of attorneys from around the country in a video conference Tuesday.

Several dozen lawyers in Tampa and St. Petersburg participated.

Jolie pleaded with them to get involved as she and others announced the launching of the National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children, made possible with Jolie's donation of $500,000.

The center seeks to recruit and train attorneys across the country to work pro bono, or free, to represent some of the 5,000 children who wind up in immigration court proceedings each year with no lawyer.

The children arrive here after escaping human trafficking, violence and other perils in their countries.

"I guarantee you, if you take on these cases, it will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life," said Jolie, a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. She has visited refugee operations around the world.

The new national center is being put together by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Jolie appeared at a reception in Washington hosted by law firm Holland & Knight, which held the live video feed at its offices in about 20 cities around the country, including Tampa, St. Petersburg, Lakeland and a half-dozen other Florida cities.

"This is kind of a new area for us," said Pat Skelton, the pro bono partner for Holland & Knight's Tampa office.

He spoke before the video conference at the reception at the AmSouth Bank building as lawyers from his and other firms mingled, sipping wine and munching appetizers. While the firm's Tampa operation provides charity work helping children and families who lose housing or medical care, Skelton said, it has not yet taken on the cases of immigrant children.

The firm is donating 2,000 hours nationwide to the center where needed, officials said. Jolie said about 10 firms across the country have offered help.

The speakers in the video conference said many of the children are asylum seekers fleeing persecution. In a video feed, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor urged attorneys to take on one or more of the cases because the clients are usually "alone and destitute."

Chief Immigration Judge Michael Creppy, in Washington, agreed, saying the system works better when children have a good attorney.

Before the video conference ended, immigrant children in attendance in Washington were invited to the stage next to Jolie. Beaming, they shook the movie star's hand. One teenage boy wouldn't let go for a good two minutes.

For more information about the center, visit www.refugees.org or call 202 347-3507.

[Last modified March 9, 2005, 00:54:20]


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